Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

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Malaysian – Kebebasan

May 27th, 2011 · No Comments · Independence, Malaysian


Relates to freedom

A discussion of security-related concepts in Malaysia needs to include a consideration of the word kebebasan (freedom). In conjunction with other synonyms and related concepts, such as merdeka (independence), keadilan (justice) and hak asasi (basic rights), kebebasan has been a driving concept within the growing tide of reformism and resistance in Malaysia. During an interview in 2008 regarding her election as the Head of a coalition of three Opposition parties in the Malaysian Parliament, Dr Wan Azizah mentioned that the issue of human rights (or hak asasi manusia) is one of the five main thrusts of the coalition’s agenda. The coalition, she said, would agitate for the repealing of all laws that serve to restrict the freedom (or kebebasan) of the people.[1] From the perspective of Nik Aziz, one of the leaders of PAS, kebebasan is an essential building block in the creation of a democratic country. Although UMNO has established a party system to display its commitment to democracy, Nik Aziz argues that the freedom of the people and the press is still limited.[2]

A survey of press statements and speeches delivered by Malaysian Prime Ministers from the years 1998 to 2008 points to the different usage of kebebasan by Mahathir Mohamed as against Ahmad Badawi. There were differences between the two leaders in terms of their relative confidence in discussing issues of freedom and the rights of individuals and collectives in the public sphere. Ahmad Badawi’s use of kebebasan has often been couched against the background of the contributions of past nationalists (or pejuang), who laid the foundations of a safe and secure nation. He has tended to depict himself as the protector of the freedoms of past nationalists. At the same time, Ahmad Badawi argued that kebebasan as it is understood in the Malaysian context is different from the notion of freedom in other countries. In his formulation, the Malaysian conception of ‘freedom’ is determined by communitarianism, the adherence to fundamentals of Islam and the obeisance to authority. This is different from ‘freedom’ as it tends to be understood in the West – a ‘freedom’ that springs from the individual’s ego rather more than the interests of the common good. Referring to the Lina Joy apostasy case (explained below in the section on ‘Malay/Muslim) and the religious controversies that ensued, Ahmad Badawi stated that imitating the examples of freedom in foreign countries – the kebebasan which some quarters seek to achieve – would lead only to chaos. [3]

Mahathir Mohammed tended to take different stance. Coupling the concept of kebebasan with that of kemerdekaan, Mahathir presented ‘freedom’ as a means of preserving Malaysia’s independence from the encroachments of Western governments, media, economic institutions and immoral culture. In Mahathir’s perspective, Malaysia has its own communitarian and democratic culture, in contrast to Western liberalism and individualism – and that particular communitarian and democratic culture carries its own sense of freedom.  In his speeches, Mahathir often warned against falling under the influence of those who promote unlimited freedom in all areas of life.[4]




[1] ‘Azizah bersyukur dilantik Ketua Pembangkang Parlimen ke-12’, Harakah, 25 March 2008,, accessed on 8 October 2008.

[2] ‘Abdullah ke arah kediktatoran’, Harakah, 20 June 2008,, accessed on 21 September 2008.

[3] ‘The Challenges Of Multireligious, Multiethnic And Multicultural Societies’, The Prime Minister’s Office of Malaysia, 19 April 2004,, accessed on 8 October 2008, ‘ISA: Penahanan lima dalang perhimpunan haram demi keselamatan negara’, Bernama News, 13 December 2003, and ‘Amanat Tahun Baru 2008’, The Prime Minister’s Office of Malaysia, 1 January 2008,, accessed on 7 November 2008.

[4] ‘Perhimpunan Agung Umno,’ The Prime Minister’s Office of Malaysia, 19 June 1998; ‘Majlis Perasmian Kongres Profesional Muda Melayu’, The Prime Minister’s Office of Malaysia, 26 February 2000, and ‘Perutusan Hari Pekerja’, The Prime Minister’s Office of Malaysia, 1 May 2001,, accessed on 21 September 2008.


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